Elevate Difference

Personal Moments in the Lives of Victorian Women: Selections From Their Autobiographies (Book 2)

In her biography of May Duignan—better known as the notorious "Chicago May"—the late Irish writer Nuala O'Faolain notes that cemeteries are full of women whose life stories died with them, and that women's autobiographies are a critical part of lost history. I can't help but think that she would be pleased with the publication of this book (as well as its first, companion volume), which shares excerpts from the autobiographies of multiple women—some well-known and some unknown.

Grouped by themes such as career, family, and religion, some sections are more interesting than others, but all are valuable glimpses of how women lived and were treated during England's Victorian era. Reading through the selections, you're given a look at the lives of quite a range of women—from the literary and rich to those struggling to pay debts to the very religious who have isolated themselves from society.

More interesting still are the details you glean from the period of time in which the selections were written. The blatant sexism, how ever much the reader anticipates it, will still piss you off. One women writes of a chance meeting with a man she hasn't seen for years; his first question is to ask how many children she has had. When he learns she is childless he demands, "Then what have you been doing with your time?"

More horrific are casual references of women without means literally starving to death, and the bizarre lack of legal rights that married women had to the custody of their children. In short, it's a good reminder of how far we've come, as a gender, despite the fact that we're still fighting for full equality.

My only gripe about this book is the fact that it picked up straight where the first volume left off. While each section has a short introduction, there's no foreword or much information—short of one line per author about when they were born and died, and where they came from—about who the women were or why their stories were selected for inclusion in the volume. This is not only disjointed, but also left me with unanswered curiosity.

Having only read the second volume of this collection, I can't help but think that I would have enjoyed it more if I had first read book one.

Written by: M.L. Madison, April 13th 2009